Only one college football team has five players on the list of preseason hopefuls for the Lombardi Award given annually to the country's best lineman or linebacker. It's not a defending champion or traditional powerhouse. It's Virginia, which plans to build its season on newfound strength up front.
While the Lombardi nominees -- offensive guard Elton Brown, defensive end Chris Canty, tight end Heath Miller and linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Darryl Blackstock -- get most of the attention, the Cavaliers are stocked with veteran players on the offensive line, at tailback and on the defensive front seven. Most are entering their second or third season as starters.
"That's been the progression for three straight years," fourth-year coach Al Groh said. "Each year we've become, I think, a more physically rugged team. We should continue with that this year, and hopefully we can use it as really the foundation of our game."
The Cavaliers will need more from a running game that gained 130.4 yards per game, second-worst in the ACC, especially now that star quarterback Matt Schaub has moved on, replaced by the athletic but less experienced Marques Hagans. They appear to have the tools to improve, with tailbacks Wali Lundy, Alvin Pearman and Michael Johnson, and veteran linemen Brown, Zac Yarbrough, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Brad Butler. The lone newcomer is Ron Darden, filling in at left guard until Ian-Yates Cunningham returns from back surgery. The current starting five owns 91 career starts -- and that doesn't include sixth man Brian Barthelmes, who has 16 of his own.
"A lot of times when we go to the line of scrimmage, we don't even have to make the calls," said Yarbrough, a senior who could contend for all-ACC honors at center. "We know what each other's thinking, where we're going."
Their counterparts on the defensive line -- Canty, nose tackle Andrew Hoffman and end Brennan Schmidt -- have been together as starters for two full seasons. The linebacking corps, which also includes Kai Parham and Dennis Haley, is only slightly less experienced, and makes up for that with an abundance of talent.
"It's a really comfortable feeling," Schmidt said. "You know you can count on everyone, just because you've been there together so long."
"Finally we have, I think, the kind of people playing that Groh wants to," Yarbrough said. "We finally can fit into his defense and his type of offense that he wants to run. . . . We have guys here that can make plays and are very smart on the field. When you get both those put together, it holds up."
Cavaliers Notes: Punters Noah Greenbaum, Sean Johnson, Kurt Korte, Chris Gould and Bryan Lescanec are auditioning for the job vacated when Tom Hagan left the team to concentrate on baseball. . . . Parham (back) and starting safety Jermaine Hardy (knee) are back at full strength after sitting out spring practice. Wide receiver Michael McGrew, who missed last season because of a broken leg, is expected to regain the starting job he held in 2001 and 2002. . . . Reserve lineman Braden Campbell has been forced to give up football after injuries to both of his wrists left him unable to withstand contact at the line of scrimmage. . . .
Virginia has the NCAA maximum of 105 players in camp this month, despite losing three incoming recruits. Olu Hall (Robinson) and Branden Albert (Glen Burnie) are prepping at Hargrave Military Academy, while Ahmad Bradshaw transferred to Marshall after an underage drinking arrest last month led Groh to suspend him for the season. . . . Virginia practice is open to the public the next five days: Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Monday at 6:45 p.m., Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. and Wednesday at 8:45 a.m.